Jack Kennedy’s Gift

                   Dedicated to my Dad for still carrying a torch for JFK

I had come to pick up Amanda from her cleaning job at an old, beaten, downtown catholic church. The church was tucked deep in the shadow of tall businesses that surrounded it, they seemed to suck oxygen from the air. Dirt covered the small church’s stained glass windows, pews, floors and altar. It was Amanda’s job to dust all of the surfaces within her reach and empty the trash into a dumpster in the alley behind the church. Amanda was a former art student of mine, she was enrolled in our high school’s developmental life skills program that provided job training and placement. Amanda had been diagnosed with Williams Syndrome in the womb from her mother’s amniocentesis test results, the disorder had formed a remarkably polite disposition in a rather intellectually/socially bland yet creative mind. It wasn’t my job to pick Amanda up – I was not a part of the life skills program (but since the job trainer was absent and Amanda knew me, I was able to do a small favor). I parked my car in the small parking lot near the rear exit of the church and got out to let Amanda know that I was her ride home.

Upon entering the church I found the parish priest struggling into his black rain jacket preparing to leave – it looked to me like he was skipping out without telling Amanda he was leaving. I knew that he had been informed that Amanda didn’t like loud unexpected noises, loss of electricity, or being left alone, so seeing him about to sidle out the side door irritated me. My call out to Amanda startled and embarrassed him; he reached for his heart, then sat down in a pew crestfallen, mumbling a blessing. Amanda continued her routine in her typical forward leaning head down fashion which gave the impression of great determination but in fact was how she moved about anywhere – she cheerful announced that she was almost done and I called back to let her know that I would be in my car waiting for her. Realizing that my leaving the church in no way relieved the priest of his responsibility, he stayed to wait out Amanda’s completion of her tasks before locking up and heading home.

As I left the church I noticed a man standing by the dumpster, he was surrounded by a bright light which I hadn’t seen earlier – there wasn’t a light post by the dumpster so I assumed that the church or one of the nearby businesses had a motion detector floodlight to protect against unsavory night visitors. The man was dressed as if for boating, I could see this plainly as I walked toward my car – starched oxford shirt open at the throat, sleeves rolled, tan chino pants; his dark hair looked wind-blown. His attire caught my attention because it was early afternoon in February and starting to get dark. Remarkably the man had no coat on nor did he look cold. He was cradling something in his arms. As I reached for my keys the man beckoned to me and then called out my name – did I know this man? How did he know my name was Kathryn? I looked around, the lights were still on in the church and the bright light around the man looked safe. I decided to see if the man needed help – I had probably mistook his greeting.  As I approached the man a chill went down my spine – in front of me was Jack Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy, standing as if he had just tied up his sailboat at a nearby dock. He smiled and moved forward to take my hand, his handshake was firm; I noted my hand was cold in his warm grasp.

I couldn’t say anything more than croak out “Mr. President …” He chuckled and nodded his head, “Is Amanda almost finished with her cleaning?” “Almost,” I replied. “Amanda does a commendable job. I like to watch her dust the stations and straighten the altar cloth,” the President said in his Boston Brahmin accent. “She tries hard; she has her routine that she checks off in her head,” I said feeling like I needed to be pinched. “Williams Syndrome?” he queried. I must have looked shocked because he went on, “Sargent filled me in on all the numerous disabilities and disorders and Amanda fit the Williams’ bill to a T with her dogged determination and pleasant personality.” He noted my gasp. “Special Olympics was Sarge’s pet project, as you may recall.”

“How old were you when I was … in Dallas? he asked, lowering his voice. Tears sprang to my eyes and began to stream down my cheeks, “I was in third grade, the teachers were crying as they herded us to our buses. I watched the whole thing on TV at home … your little boy …” I couldn’t go on. Jack reached into his pant pocket and brought out a perfectly pressed and folded linen handkerchief which I accepted with a snuffled thank you. “You were my president, my world felt safe and alive – your death left me feeling so hollow and as a third grader I didn’t know why. I was so young but I knew that I wanted to do some–” Jack cut me off with, “Ask not what your country can do” and we both intoned in unison, “ask what you can do for your country!” My face flushed as we smiled at one another and it was at this point that I noticed Amanda slowly leaving the church side door and turn to walk toward us standing in the pool of light. President Kennedy called out to Dana and she responded with a broad smile. They exchanged words, softly talking about her family and her beloved black lab, Spooky – the president laughed as he bent to pick up the object that he had been holding when I first saw him. He gave the tissue wrapped object to Amanda and she accepted it as though it was the most precious gift in all the world. When she gingerly opened the tissue paper I understood her caution, there she stood painted in oil, looking like an angel, her eyes shining, her smile stretched wide, her face tilted back so that her dark curls fell away and exposed her glowing glance at the painter.

“I didn’t know you were a painter,” I said to the president. “Oh, no, this isn’t my work, a friend of mine painted her from watching her work at the church – he said she reminded him of his daughter,” President Kennedy explained. “There he is now, he uses the church basement as his studio. Lee, can you walk these two young ladies to their car?” Shyly, smiling lopsidedly, Lee came toward us and I recognized him, too. Lee had on a familiar dark sweatshirt, white polo shirt and baggy, paint stained jeans. I had witnessed his cold-blooded murder along with the whole nation at the hands of Jack Ruby some 48 years ago. I didn’t mean to stare but I couldn’t keep myself from looking back and forth between the two men, both were illuminated with an inner light that spread out to take in whomever they spoke to – I was now bathed in Lee’s glow as I opened the back passenger door for Amanda. She stooped to settle her portrait in the rear seat well and then she waved to the president before getting into the front seat. Lee opened my door for me and before he closed it he whispered, “I was framed. You have a safe ride home now. Don’t pick up any hitch-hikers, you hear?”

My Honda started without any problem and the two men turned to wave as I backed up then made my way toward the main street. Just before I left them I watched the two friends walk together behind the dumpster and saw their light stretch tall in the alley illuminating each of the church’s stained glass windows as they passed by. Amanda, buckling her safety belt, turned to me and said, “Weren’t those two gentlemen sweet?”